On the outside, The Condemned is what you would expect of a documentary about a prison: bad food, unsympathetic guards, tearful family reunions, letters from Lonely Hearts, and a lot of tattoos. But Federal Penal Colony 56, buried deep in the wilderness of Russia, contains so much more.
A prison exclusively for murderers with 260 men inside, the film provides a unique look at a world most of us should hope to never know. The Condemned spares no punches in exposing the dark and troubled soul of this place and its inhabitants.
Over the course of the film, we are introduced to several of the inmates, both lifers and others. Many have spent most of their lives incarcerated in one form or another, and it’s clear they have adapted to this life.
The film is at its strongest when these inmates share the frank details of their crimes — so far detached from the past and yet wholly affected by it. As the incredibly quotable inmate Timur puts it, “that’s the worst punishment, the analysis of your past.”
Just as the moment you begin to feel for them, as they discuss their limited daily routines or their lack of communication with their families, you remember that these 260 men are responsible for nearly 800 murders between them. Is it okay to cry tears of joy when an inmate is being reintroduced to his now adult son, or is the only acceptable emotional reaction shock when he dispassionately reveals that he killed four people?
There are no so-called heroes in The Condemned, only so-called villains. Even villains still have feelings; murder does not make anyone nameless and faceless, as much as we can wish it did. These men have been locked away and all but the freedom of their thoughts taken away.
It is a testament to the film that you wonder if this is the best form of punishment for such atrocious crimes or the worst. Like life, there is no real resolution, just a infinite supply of unknowns and what ifs. Sometimes that’s all a documentary needs to do — reflect life, in all its ugliness.
The Condemned compellingly presents this impartial picture. I strongly recommend this film as part of the ongoing human lesson in understanding the havoc we impart upon each other, both in killing and dispensing judgement on one another. In the end, you wonder if all the trouble that was gone to was worth it.